Underwater helicopter escape highlights importance of emergency breathing systems

A pilot’s difficulty experienced while escaping an aerial firebombing helicopter after it had impacted and sank in a reservoir following an engine failure highlights the potential value of emergency breathing systems, an ATSB investigation highlights.

Using a 1,400 litre water bucket on a 100 foot long-line, the UH-1H helicopter was collecting water from the Ben Boyd Reservoir to assist bush-fire clean-up operations near Eden on the NSW south coast on 9 January 2020.

As the helicopter arrived in a 100 ft hover over the water, the pilot heard a grinding noise. In response they jettisoned the long-line and bucket and applied forward cyclic to fly towards land.

However, the helicopter experienced a complete loss of engine power and immediately descended into the water. On impact, the helicopter’s chin-bubbles fragmented, and the helicopter rolled inverted, filled with water, and sank.

Unable to open the pilot, co-pilot, or sliding cabin doors, the pilot punched out the right sliding door rear window and escaped the helicopter. The pilot inflated their lifejacket and swam to shore, surviving the accident with minor injuries.

While the pilot was not carrying, and was not required to carry, an emergency breathing system (EBS), during the escape they found a pocket of air in the cabin, allowing them to take ‘a couple of breaths’.

“Research into helicopter overwater accident survival consistently reports drowning as the leading cause of fatalities, due to the inability of the occupant to hold their breath long enough to escape,” said ATSB Chief Commissioner Angus Mitchell.

“In this accident, the pilot found an air pocket in the cabin, which enabled the escape time to extend beyond the initial breath-hold time. While it could not be determined if the pilot would have drowned without the air pocket, it would have increased that likelihood.

“Although the pilot was able to successfully escape from underwater after finding the air pocket, an emergency breathing system would have reduced the risk of drowning.”

The pilot had conducted a number of helicopter underwater escape training (HUET) courses, a condition of the operator’s contract with the NSW Rural Fire Service. At interview, the pilot told ATSB investigators they ‘would have been dead without HUET’.

However, the pilot had not completed the EBS portions of the HUET courses as EBS equipment had not been introduced into their operation.

A range of EBS options are available on the market, including rebreather, compressed air, and hybrid options.

“Helicopter underwater escape training – or HUET – provides a learning environment for the essential skills of maintaining orientation, location, and operation of exits,” said Mr Mitchell.

“However, extended breath-hold may be necessary for problem-solving and physical effort during an underwater escape, such as dealing with snagging hazards, obstructions, or inoperative exits that require an alternative escape route, as in this accident.

“In these scenarios an EBS can afford the pilot sufficient time to perform the escape actions without an air pocket and therefore reduce the risk of drowning.”

Following the accident, the pilot acquired a compressed air EBS and intends to conduct the EBS elements of future HUET courses.

“The operator reported they have started investigating how to implement EBS company-wide, and how to attach the units to their pilots without limiting their movement when conducting long-line operations,” Mr Mitchell said.

Following a teardown inspection by the manufacturer, the engine failure was determined to have resulted from inadequate lubrication to two main bearings in the front section of the engine, leading to their failure.

This resulted in contact between the power and compressor shafts, disconnection of rotational drive to the fuel pump and fuel control, and subsequent fuel starvation.

However, the exact cause of the restriction of oil flow to the main bearings in the front section of the engine was not able to be established.

You can find here the report: Engine failure and collision with water involving Garlick Helicopters UH-1H, VH-ONZ Ben Boyd Reservoir, New South Wales, on 9 January 2020

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